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CHAMPION OF HOMELESS BOYS

Father Francis's picture
Saint John Bosco

Homelessness and unemployment are two of the greatest problems of our society. In every big city we see young people hanging around the streets, sleeping rough and in constant danger. Over 200 years ago St. John Bosco saw the same problems amongst young boys in Turin and was determined to become their friend.

Born in Piedmont in 1815, his father was a peasant farmer, who died when John was only two years old. He was brought up by his devout and hard-working mother who struggled to make ends meet. At the age of nine he had a vision which showed him working with poor and neglected boys - and he knew that this was to be his vocation. While still in his early teens he began helping the boys in his own village, teaching them catechism and bringing them to Church, encouraging them to come to his classes with conjuring and acrobatics.

When he was 16 John entered a seminary but was so poor that his maintenance and clothes were provided by charity. On becoming a deacon he moved to Turin, where he found that some of the young boys had turned to crime. With permission from his superiors, and supported by wealthy benefactors, he opened a Sunday School and recreation centre where they could spend time in a safe environment.

A few years later John was moved to another parish in the city. His mother was his housekeeper. It must have been a large property because 40 destitute boys who had been sleeping on the streets were accommodated there. He started a night school for them and later opened workshops to train them as shoemakers and tailors. This work expanded to include a printing press and Latin classes. The number of boys grew to 500 and John found ten young priests to help him in his work.

During this time John built a church dedicated to St. Francis de Sales, his favourite saint. As the numbers grew he needed even more priests to help him, although looking after tough youngsters was hard and many of the priests could not cope. Eventually, John found a group of dedicated priests interested in this work and together they founded a Congregation in 1859, becoming known as the Salesians, after St. Francis de Sales. Thirteen years later a Congregation of nuns was established to carry out similar work with poor girls.

His contacts with influential benefactors meant that John found himself in demand in Rome: Pius IX was building a basilica in honour of the Sacred Heart and he asked John to be a fund-raiser for it. Although busy with his own work, John travelled through Italy and France to raise the money. Opened in 1887, John actually said Mass in the Basilica once but, by now, he was exhausted by all his efforts. His doctors ordered him to rest but John found it impossible and he died peacefully on 31st. January 1888 at the age of 73.

How many people could have done what John Bosco did? He rescued thousands of young people from degradation, giving them security, a skill with which to earn a living and a knowledge of their faith. His inspiration in this work was Francis de Sales, patron of writers and journalists, and the Church has proclaimed St John Bosco patron of editors because of his own interest in the printed word.